The Godspeed and the Turkey Shoot

By Tom Neale, 10/14/2010


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Different Boats Same Calm

The brigantine Godspeed, sailed, with the Susan Constant and the Discovery, from London, December 20, 1606. They were headed in the cold season to another world, to begin an odyssey of survival and discovery and the legacy of Captain John Smith. Godspeed carried 39 passengers and 13 sailors. This vessel was smaller than the Susan Constant and larger than the Discovery. She had length on deck believed to have been 65.5’, with a beam around 17’ and a mast height of around 71.5’. The 52 souls cramped aboard, with nothing of what we would consider remotely adequate for comfort and safety, expected the trip to take around two months. Instead, in part because of lousy winds, the trip across took 144 days. She arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in late April 1607. The settlers then explored some of the lower Bay before finally settling on May 13, 1607 at what is now Jamestown.

Old and New Becalmed

On the weekend of October 9 and 10, 2010, over 100 much more modern sailing vessels filled the Rappahannock off the mouth of the Corrotoman River. This wasn’t very far from Jamestown as the crow flies, although much farther as sailboats travel. They waited, some milling about under slow throttle, some slatting about with drooping sails, one guy even paddling. There wasn’t a breath of wind and it was race time for the annual Hospice Turkey Shoot Regatta, a regatta for boats built or designed at least 25 years ago, many much older, based out of Yankee Point Sailboat Marina. It’s hard to time your crossing over the starting line when you’re drifting barely in control, as is everybody else. It’s also hard to time your start when you don’t know when the flags will go up or whether the race will be called. Occasionally some optimist would jump up and point off to a distant patch on the river’s surface, crying “wind….there’s a little gust.” But the gusts turned out to be swarms of bait fish swilling just beneath the surface, spooked to the top by some much bigger hungry fish below.

John McConnico Looks for Wind

Against the backdrop of all the sailboats, white and colored sails limp on their masts, stood an apparition from the far past. The Godspeed lay still in the waters, her suit of canvas hanging heavy and lifeless from her spars. She is the replica of the original Godspeed and, while normally docked at Jamestown, Virginia as part of the museum there, she had come to participate in this event. Unlike the nimble pleasure sailboats, it takes more than a bit of breeze to move her 40 burden tons, even though she can carry 2,420 square feet of sail. Finally the crew turned on the diesel (a helpful addition obviously not found aboard the original) and the ship lumbered around the fleet, adding to the excitement by shooting her cannon twice. As the echo bounced off the hills and faded into the marshes, some thought the race was beginning, but still there was no wind.

Paddling Waiting for the Wind

Capt’n John McConnico, who, with the help of a few friends, had founded this event years ago, paced the foredeck of the committee boat. He and other committee members were anxiously watching the waters for any sign of the slightest breeze. There was none. The first 5 minute warning signal was supposed to have been at 11:30 and it was nearly an hour after that when we pulled alongside in our old Mako to say hello to John. He was worried about having to call the race. John is a sailor’s sailor, having made many offshore trips, particularly down to the Caribbean. He’s also done a trans-Atlantic trip and a double Southern Ocean trip. And in addition to that, he’s a great guy--a hero to many. I’ve known him for years and never heard a single bad word about him, except stories about his cooking on those long trips. John’s fondest wish for these regattas (in addition to raising funds for Hospice) is simple: he wants everybody to have a great time. So he was desperately watching for ripples on the water and fretting.

On the Edge of the Wind

Mel and I were too. She was ready to shoot some great pictures, and I wanted to see a good race. Even more than that, I wanted to see Godspeed sailing. We were all concentrating on the waters to the east and southeast. That’s where a sea breeze would come in and that’s what you’d expect. We moved away from the fleet, and cut our Yamaha outside the area of anxious inactivity. The skippers had enough trouble not tangling with each other without having a powerboat in their midst. Suddenly a movement caught my eye, off to the west, near the western mouth of the Corrotoman. In that first instant it was dark and foreign to what I was accustomed to. It was something that didn’t belong in the psyche of my years of being on the water.

Godspeed Finds the Wind

I turned my head and realized what was happening. The Godspeed’s sails were billowing out, filling and pulling like the wind gods finally realized what was there. Her engine was off and she started heading out toward open water away from the banks, the breeze following her, overtaking her, and pushing her through the waters. It was an incredible sight. All around the small, light but tricked out sailboats were coming to life--not ponderously like the ancient design of the Godspeed, but nimbly, darting about with speed and agility, ready to begin the race.

John McConnico did just that, after skillfully directing others to reset the marks since the wind was from the west and building, not from the east. He announced the changes and got each fleet over the line and on its way. The Godspeed majestically sailed upriver a ways, keeping out of the way of the racing fleet, but lending its historical almost spectral aura to the day.

When the Wind Finally Blows

The wind continued westerly and the race, from our vantage point, scooting about in the Mako outside the fleet, was beautiful. The Turkey Shoot Regatta began around 20 years ago. The original Godspeed set sail in the early 17th century. At first glance, you’d think the two events have little in common. But I’d like to think differently. I’d like to think that maybe the Godspeed, waiting there in the lee of the shore, having come so far for a special regatta, over time and space, had maybe just a little influence on the winds. And it’s interesting to realize that all of us old salts who expected the wind to be easterly were outfoxed yet one more time, as the original fleet of which Godspeed was a part had unexpected weather on their trip across the Atlantic. And I’d like to think there’s a reason for it all, and as is the reason for the Hospice Turkey Shoot Regatta, that reason is good.


Tom’s Tips About Fathoming the Wind

1. Figuring out what the wind is going to do in large areas is often easier than figuring it out in local areas. Learning basic weather principals about phenomena such as highs, lows, heating and cooling helps with this.
2. Localized wind often depends on local factors. For example, difference in temperature between land surface and the air and air over water, and the air over land, can cause a localized breeze for a while. It may not last long, but it can be very helpful or the reverse. This heat/cool effect can occur easily on a clear day…

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